The February 2019 U.S.-Taliban agreement and the U.S.-Afghan government joint declaration, as well as the ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations that began in September 2020, come amid nearly two decades of U.S.-involved war in Afghanistan. What ultimately brought the Taliban and the Afghan government to the table for these historic negotiations?
The United States negotiating with the Taliban over the core security conflict between both parties brought the Taliban to the table with the Afghan government. The Taliban wanted the United States to leave Afghanistan and the United States wanted to ensure that Afghanistan would not be used by international terrorist groups. One of the concessions the United States insisted from the Taliban in order to secure a timetable for departure was that they begin negotiations with the Afghan government. The Taliban had previously refused such processes since they perceived the Afghan government as a creation of the United States and the international community, rather than a legitimate negotiation partner.
In the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s publication “Coronavirus in Conflict Zones: A Sobering Landscape,” you discuss the numerous ways the COVID-19 pandemic could harm the intra-Afghan peace process. How has the pandemic impacted the negotiations thus far?
There are a few things we know at this point and a number of things we do not. We know that the Taliban and the Afghan government sought to create a propaganda-based public relations case for all they were doing to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the Taliban released short videos showing Taliban fighters wearing PPE and taking people’s temperature. It turns out those videos were actually staged and the thermometers were fake. At the same time, the Taliban did not stop the kinds of attacks that were the most disruptive or damaging to Afghan efforts to handle the virus, such as attacks on hospitals, cities in the midst of outbreaks, and power distribution grids, which reduced ventilator reliability. The Taliban combatants were looking to positively position themselves in the public eye, but sadly they were not actually changing their behavior in the conflict to make it easier to address the pandemic. One of the things that I pointed to speculatively in the piece was the possibility that the combatants might seek localized military advantages as a result of the pandemic. For example, the Taliban might learn that Afghan government forces at a particular base were suffering from a COVID-19 outbreak, and therefore the Taliban might seek to take advantage of weaker militaries in those areas. Alternatively, the Afghan government might take advantage of the Taliban forces not having access to the health facilities in Pakistan that they normally use. As far as I know, neither has happened, although it might have to do with limited information at that level of granularity.
Lastly is the added difficulty of conducting peace negotiations amid a pandemic. Normally, peace negotiations involve two complicated parts. The first is whether the parties to the conflict are facing each other across the table and the second is whether the parties are going back into their own meeting rooms and sorting out amongst themselves what their priorities are and where they are willing to compromise. Typically this process requires a fair amount of physical back and forth. Since the negotiations are taking place in Doha, the negotiators would travel back to Kabul or back to Pakistan to talk to their leadership and to their constituencies to make sure that they have workable instructions to move forward. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, that has not been possible. The negotiators are basically locked in Doha. In some ways, it could be an advantage having the negotiators in one place. Over time it could turn into a disadvantage if the negotiators are not able to receive or update the instructions they are operating under to reach a conclusion.
The U.S.-Afghan government joint declaration and the U.S.-Taliban agreement include the central promise of U.S. troop withdrawal by May 2021. However, President Donald Trump said on October 7 that the remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be brought back by December 2020. While the specifics remain unconfirmed, what impact do you think this announcement might have on the ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations?
The Trump administration has been all over the map with their announcements about troop levels. The National Security Adviser said troops would go down to about 2,500. President Trump has not necessarily said that troop numbers would go to zero, but he has said that all remaining troops should come home by Christmas. Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has, in a very aggressive and unusual way, dismissed and disparaged the National Security Adviser. So, the fact is that we have no idea what, if anything, this Administration is planning. The impact that this ambiguity has on the intra-Afghan negotiations is profoundly negative. What the Taliban fundamentally want out of this whole set of negotiations is the withdrawal of the United States. If the United States is saying the Taliban neither have to give up anything else or seriously engage with their Afghan government counterparts, since U.S. troops may leave anyway, it reduces the ability of the U.S. negotiators on the scene to shape the environment in a way that might lead to a decent outcome. The situation is tragic because it is extremely unlikely that Trump will actually bring U.S. troops home; he has made this kind of announcement before about Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, but never actually did it. In the meantime, it undermines the chances of making real progress in the peace talks.
What is the main barrier to the Taliban and the Afghan government reaching an agreement in the ongoing negotiations?
Regarding the question of the main disagreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, I do not think we nor them know the answer. The Taliban spent years preparing themselves internally for their negotiations with the United States. I do not think they have spent the same amount of time really considering what they need and what they want to achieve in their negotiations with the Afghan government. Similarly, the Afghan government’s approach to these negotiations is informed by negotiations they have had with less powerful insurgent groups and they lack a realistic perspective about what kinds of compromises they may be willing or needing to make in order to end the war with the Taliban.
In the strategic sense as to what would make these negotiations move forward or not, there are many factors to consider, such as trust and the duration of the war. To put my finger on one thing, it is the question of whether the Taliban believe that the Afghan republican forces are a real political-military force that has to be reckoned with or whether they think that, with the drawdown and eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Afghan government forces will blow away like pollen in the wind. The bottom line is that the Afghan government forces need to convince the Taliban that they are a real political-military force in Afghanistan at which point it should become much more likely that there could be a substantial conversation to clarify what points of disagreement need to be addressed.
How likely is it that intra-Afghan negotiations will stall or collapse, given the continued violence and drawdown of foreign troops?
This is a negotiation to end a war that has been going on for two generations, hence the possibility of the negotiations stalling is 100 percent; in fact, you could argue that they are already stalled. It is not necessarily the end of the world. These types of negotiations, comparatively and historically speaking, are very difficult. It is going to take a lot of work on all sides to push them forward.
The possibility that the negotiations will collapse is not negligible. The negotiations are entering into a complicated period. The Taliban might be doubling down on a hope that Trump will withdraw without them having to make any further concessions or that the process will be complicated by a transition between President Trump and an incoming Biden Administration. Both possibilities create real risks for the peace talks, though the talks are not guaranteed to collapse.
If an agreement is reached between the Afghan government and the Taliban, what sort of power-sharing system do you think might result, given the divergent visions each party has for the country’s future?
It may be too early to speculate, although some scholars have done so already. Neither side has worked this power-sharing question through thoroughly enough to know what their bottom line positions are going to be. It is an ironic situation, the factors the Afghans would need to agree on in order to achieve a stable peace are not that hard to identify based on comparative experience. There needs to be some sort of decentralization of power that recognizes the realities in Afghanistan look very different in the South and the East than they do in the North and the West. Local authorities should be given a degree of control over governing at that local level. Similarly, there should be constitutional power-sharing structures at the center so that all of the powerful parties at the local level are confident that the center is not going to be grabbed by another party and turned against them. Right now there is an extremely powerful president with few constraints because of the central government's limited powers. This is an entirely inappropriate system for Afghanistan because it means that every election is a winner take all election in a country that has deeply divided, locally divided politics.
Hence, I envision sustainable peace would entail some degree of decentralization of power and some inherent power-sharing mechanisms at the center. It would be a more parliamentary system that forces the parties into power-sharing structures. This is opposed to the present system in which after every election extraconstitutional negotiation is necessary to achieve sufficient power-sharing agreements to keep the state afloat, which will only get harder if the Taliban is added to the mix. However, this system is not necessarily what any of the Afghan parties are going to say they want from the negotiations. They carry with them the scar tissue from all the years of war and varied forms of government. Thus, they will probably come up with something quite different. If they do, hopefully, they will have the wherewithal to stick to it and make it work, even if it is not the ideal system given Afghanistan’s political realities.
U.S. Department of State from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons